Blowing the whistle in South Korea: Hyundai Man takes on chaebol culture

Mon May 15, 2017 7:55am EDT
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By Hyunjoo Jin

YONGIN, South Korea(Reuters) - South Korean engineer Kim Gwang-ho flew 7,000 miles to Washington last year to do something he never dreamed he would: he reported alleged safety lapses at Hyundai Motor Co - his employer of 26 years - to U.S. regulators.

Citing an internal report from Hyundai's quality strategy team to management, Kim told the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) the company was not taking enough action to address an engine fault that increased the risk of crashes.

Hyundai (005380.KS: Quote) denies the allegations. The company promotes openness and transparency in all safety-related operations, and its decisions on recalls comply with both global regulators and stringent internal processes, Hyundai told Reuters in an emailed statement.

Reuters was unable to review the internal report cited by Kim due to a court injunction filed by Hyundai.

In a culture which values corporate loyalty, Kim was moving against the tide when he handed the NHTSA 250 pages of internal documents on the alleged defect and nine other faults.

South Korea has been buffeted by corporate scandals, many within its family-run conglomerates or chaebol, but has seen few whistleblowers. A high proportion are sacked or ostracized, despite legislation to protect them, according to advocacy groups.

Kim, fired in November for allegedly leaking trade secrets about the company's technology and sales to media, has since been reinstated by Hyundai after a ruling by a South Korean government body under whistleblower protection laws.

Hyundai has filed a complaint disputing the decision.   Continued...

Kim Gwang-ho speaks as he checks his Hyundai Motor's car during an interview with Reuters in Yongin, South Korea, April 19, 2017. Picture taken on April 19, 2017.  REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji